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CALIFORNIA: SAILORS AND SAINTS WHERE SUNSHINE SOOTHES THE SOUL Once-sleepy seaside town of San Diego beckons visitors to its varied landscapes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

San Diego reminds one of the old Spanish proverb: "The lands of the sun expand the soul."

Bathed in sunshine 75 percent of the time, bothered by less than 10 inches of rain a year and blessed with average temperatures like a proverbial day in June, the city provides the radiant sort of environment that is, indeed, good for the soul. And soothing to mind and body as well.

But there's more than a balmy climate behind the meteoric growth of California's first civilian settlement to its current ranking as America's sixth largest city. Nor is sunshine all it takes to satisfy the city's 35 million annual visitors.

Already one of the world's most visited destinations, San Diego will see its popularity peak during the first five months of 1992 when it hosts the 28th defense of the America's Cup. Yachting's premier event and one of the classics of international sport, America's Cup '92 will focus the spotlight of world attention on San Diego Bay from January to May when a final week of match races decides the winner of the prestigious cup. Spectators will find plenty to see and do during lulls in the action.

Together with its surrounding county, San Diego occupies a Connecticut-size chunk of real estate that forms the southwestern corner of the continental United States and is as varied a parcel of landscape as any in the world. In a matter of hours, you can journey from broad, sandy beaches up and over craggy mountain peaks and down again to sun-drenched desert.

Situated 120 freeway miles south of Los Angeles, San Diego is not so much a city as a collection of communities hidden in canyons and gathered on small shoulders of land that shrug down to the sea. As a result, it hardly seems as large as it is, home of 1.1 million in the city and 2.5 million countywide. Thanks to its compact downtown district and well-planned network of freeways that remain surprisingly unclogged during all but peak rush hours, it's an easy city to explore.

Add a -- of history as the birthplace of California, the fascination of a foreign border only minutes away, a host of quality visitor attractions, a broad range of accommodations and restaurants and a mind-boggling calendar of sports and recreational activities, and it's easy to see why this once-sleepy seaside town has blossomed as California's most popular year-round vacation destination.

Mirror-bright office buildings, luxury condos and hotel towers have risen like beanstalks to fill out the city's skyline. Full-scale redevelopment of historic Gaslamp Quarter, covering 38 acres in the heart of downtown, has cut a swath through porno shops, honky-tonks and tattoo parlors that once hindered development and made city streets unsafe at night.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been sunk into bayside projects, resulting in one of the most stunning waterfronts to be found anywhere. A new $165 million convention center, with its tensile fabric roof resembling billowing sails, fronts the bay like a giant cruise ship. The sparkling centerpiece of this downtown renaissance, however, is Horton Plaza, an avant-garde 11.5-acre shopping, restaurant and entertainment complex, ideally situated to serve as a focal point for urban forays.

Forget everything you know about ordinary shopping malls, because Horton Plaza transcends its genre in a whimsical, multilevel, open-air, pastel-hued concoction of ramps, escalators, rambling paths, bridges, towers, piazzas, sculptures, fountains and live greenery.

For a study in contrasts and a remarkable architectural adventure, combine your visit to Horton Plaza with a stroll through the adjacent Gaslamp Quarter. Here, you can walk along wide brick sidewalks graced by period street lamps, trees and benches as you survey more than 100 Victorian buildings restored to their original splendor and converted into a galaxy of shops, galleries, pubs and restaurants.

Any downtown visit eventually leads to the harbor -- where the city embraces its bay and presents its finest profile. The best way to see it is on a harbor excursion. A variety of vessels dock at the foot of Broadway, providing leisurely cruises around the 22-square-mile harbor. Try the turn-of-the-century, 151-foot schooner Invader for a most interesting harbor tour.

A lovely landscaped boardwalk runs along the cityside of the harbor, anchored by neatly manicured Marina Embarcadero Park. This verdant 22-acre promenade is flanked on one side by Seaport Village shopping and entertainment complex, designed in the manner of an early California seaport, and on the other by the new San Diego Convention Center and the soaring twin glass towers of the 1,355-room Marriott Hotel & Marina.

While you're by the bay, consider a visit to Coronado. Almost an island, this exclusive community is connected to the mainland only by the graceful San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge and by a long, narrow sandspit called the Silver Strand.

To get there, drive across the bridge or hop aboard one of the 1940-vintage ferries that ply the waters between the Embarcadero and Coronado's beautifully restored Old Ferry Landing. From there the Coronado Trackless Trolley will take you on a 20-minute sightseeing tour and drop you at the town's leading attraction, Hotel del Coronado. This turret-topped, Victorian-style wooden wonder with its immaculately manicured grounds is a century-old national historic landmark and is, without question, San Diego's most famous and fabled hotel. Its guest list includes more than a dozen U.S. presidents and other notables ranging from Thomas Edison to Marilyn Monroe.

One city attraction that needs no introduction is San Diego Zoo. Quite simply, it is the world's most famous zoo. The numbers alone are mind-boggling: 3,900 animals representing 800 species and some 7,000 rare plants, all spread out over more than 100 acres. Note the minimal use of cages in favor of moated enclosures, where neither you nor the beasts have to look at each other through bars or screens.

In reality, the zoo occupies only a small portion of sprawling Balboa Park, and you'd do well to allow a full day to take in the remainder of it. Wide avenues and walkways curve through lawns and luxurious subtropical landscape leading to nine major museums, three art galleries, five theaters, a golf course and countless other recreation facilities.

While museums, galleries and theaters are meant to be absorbing on the inside, at Balboa Park, they are equally so on the outside. Most of the park's extraordinary Spanish baroque buildings were erected for one of two international fairs -- the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-'16 and the California-Pacific International Exposition of 1935-'36.

The two dowager empresses of Balboa Park's theaters -- Starlight Bowl and the Old Globe Theater -- were born at the 1935-'36 exposition. If you have any interest in theater, order tickets (well in advance of your visit) for a play at the Old Globe. Only then can you appreciate the greatness of this Tony Award-winning stage and its world-class cast of players.

A bit farther afield and requiring yet another day to explore are Old Town, Point Loma and Mission Bay. This itinerary leads you north from downtown, covering distances sufficient to mandate a car.

Old Town State Historic Park commemorates both the city's founding and the settlement of California, yet the historic significance of the place seems somewhat muddled in commercialism. While there are some fine restorations, particularly the old adobe Casa de Estudillo from 1827, the overall impression of Old Town is that of a Mexican-theme shopping center.

Well-immersed by now in San Diego's history and culture, you really should take a look at where its residents play. The most popular recreation site is Mission Bay Park -- a city-owned aquatic park of 4,600 acres that ranks as the largest of its kind in the world. If it can be done on, in or around the water, you'll see it happening at Mission Bay.

Dredged from a shallow tidal bay and spiffied up to the tune of $60 million, it's a recreational paradise dotted with islands and lagoons and ringed by 27 miles of sandy beaches. Here, visitors join with residents for swimming, sailing, windsurfing, water skiing, jet skiing, fishing, jogging, cycling, skating, golf and tennis.

More than just a playground, Mission Bay Park features a shopping complex, resort hotels (the Princess Resort is best situated on its own island), restaurants and the popular marine park, Sea World. This 135-acre park-within-a-park has rapidly developed into the world's largest oceanarium, known for its killer whale shows, a dolphin pool where you can pet these friendly and intelligent creatures and Penguin Encounter, an icy habitat for the largest colony of penguins outside of Antarctica.

Point Loma peninsula, the high promontory that shelters San Diego Bay from the Pacific, is easily reached from Mission Bay and city beaches. Here, Cabrillo National Monument features a statue of Portuguese navigator Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo facing his 1542 landing site at Ballast Point. There's an outstanding view of the bay and city peninsula from the visitor's center. Towering nearby is the beautifully refurbished Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which guided shipping from 1855 to 1891. On the ocean side of the peninsula is Whale Watch Lookout Point where, during winter months, you can observe the annual migration of California gray whales.

La Jolla is the northernmost beach community within the City of San Diego, though this Mediterranean-style enclave perched on a bluff above the Pacific considers itself something more on the order of a principality. Call it California's answer to Monaco.

The beauty of its 7 miles of cliff-lined seacoast is La Jolla's raison d'etre. Spectacular homes, posh hotels, chic boutiques and gourmet restaurants crowd shoulder-to-shoulder for a better view of the ocean.

With so much to do within San Diego itself, it may seem anticlimactic to suggest that you could keep right on going -- but there is more to see. If you travel north, you'll find a string of uncrowded, bluff-lined beaches. Or you might want to explore the inland route through the wine valleys, over the mountains and on to the desert beyond.

If you go . . .

In 1992 the world sets sail for San Diego to witness the 28th defense of the America's Cup. Two American teams (America3 and Team Dennis Connor) will compete for the right to defend the cup against 10 foreign syndicates representing nine nations: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Italy, France, Spain, Sweden, the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia.

Action commences in mid-January with a series of selection rounds that continue until May when a best-of-seven match race series between the top challenger and defender yachts gets under way May 9 to decide the cup winner.

Event organizers have formed a non-profit marketing group, America's Cup Services, to prepare travel packages for visitors.

Set Sail for San Diego packages, available for three or six nights, include a choice of accommodations from a roster of 60 hotels in deluxe, moderate or standard categories. Each package also includes an official observation boat ticket to view races on the water, admission to Sea World and airport transfers.

Optional inclusions can cover airline tickets, car rentals, guided tours, charter boats and private yachts for race viewing and priority tickets for America's Cup '92 opening ceremonies. Basic per-person package prices range from $219 to $880 (three days) and $345 to $1,394 (six days) and vary according to hotel category and racing schedule -- with prices peaking during match race finals in May.

The racing calendar is still tentative but currently round one of the Challenger/Defender Selection Series is set to take place Jan. 10-26; round two, Feb. 2-20; and round three, March 1-15. Semifinals are slated for March 28 to April 12, and the selection finals are set for April 21 to May 2.

The America's Cup best-of-seven match race series will continue until one boat wins four races.

For additional information, contact: America's Cup Services, Attn: Tour & Travel, 1660 Hotel Circle North, Suite 710, San

Diego, Calif. 92108. Telephone: (800) 92-CUP-92 or (619) 233-0010.

For general visitor information about San Diego, contact: San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, Dept. 700, 1200 Third Ave., Suite 824, San Diego, Calif. 92101; (619) 236-1212.

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